"Structure with Soul" in Vershire
TimberHomes Builds “Timber Frames from Vermont Forests”
This week the Buzz is featuring a small business in Vershire whose reach extends beyond the borders of Vermont yet is rooted deeply in our mountains, forests and communities.
From classic trailhead kiosks to welcoming homes, functional barns and sugarhouses, and harmonious outdoor spaces, TimberHomes LLC has grown from a rather surprizing inquiry into a very successful business now almost a dozen years old. David Hooke and Josh Jackson are the founders of the company, with Shannon McIntyre and Timo Bradley currently rounding out the partnership. David took a break from work at the shop to talk to me this week about this thriving enterprise.
I asked David to explain the origins of the business and his interest in timber framing, and immediately the familiar hint of the story-telling drawl began to infuse his voice, recognizable from years of spinning yarns at Vershire’s spring Cabaret. He began, “It was all because of the Mountain School cows.” Okay… Go on...
His wife, Kathy, was teaching at the Mountain School, so David had cause to learn about the increasingly urgent needs of the Mountain School cows. Despite the influence of celebrity agricultural pioneers like Eliot Coleman, the small shed that that cows then occupied was woefully insufficient, and everyone knew it, most of all the cows.
“The school had been wanting to build a barn for six years”, David continued, but there were “competing factions, and they were simply too busy to think about it,” as a top priority. He had been Vershire’s Town Moderator for four years at that time, which was 2002, and was not an employee of the Mountain School, nor a member of any faction with opinions on barn building. In fact, he said, “I was hired as a consultant because I knew nothing about cows or barns or any of it.” They was him as “a neutral person who can get people to talk to each other.”
And so the learning process began, including field trips around the state, during which David “saw some really cool barns,” at other farms, including Butterworks Farm, where Jack and Ann Lazor make creamy, probiotic-laden Butterworks yogurt. David was fascinated with “deep bedding, which I had never heard of before. It was great to see cows hanging out in two feet of composting straw and poop, being warm and happy.” So he and the planning team decided to come up with something close to that design.
Here's the finished project below, complete with very happy cows.
"They would need a lot of room to store hay and bedding, and eventually timber frame became the obvious kind of investment choice." Next was the consideration to “hire somebody or have the kids do it,” referring to the students at the school. It was decided to include the onsite residents as workers with the provision of “really good supervision, plans, tools, and shop space,” which the site already had.
David was promoted to Clerk of the Works and the fifty-six by fifty-six foot barn for pigs, chickens, cows, with storage space upstairs, was undertaken in 2002-2003. That’s how David met Josh Jackson, who agreed to lead this project, and ended up forming TimberHomes with David two years later. The solar-powered shop on Vt. Rte. 113 is pictured below.
David had been working at Dartmouth, after going to school there in the 1980s. After living in Vershire and commuting back and forth for ten years in the ‘90s, “I wondered, What could I do here in Vershire that would be fun to do, use the stuff that was here, the talents here available, not driving all over the countryside? At first I had absolutely no idea, then it emerged - this is the way it could work. Finding a way to create a little economic activity here in town, that was key, and it’s obviously just really cool being around wood.”
“Timber frame technology has been around for a long time,” David explained in an understated way, then clarified, “at least five thousand years.” In this area, the “technology had very much died out mid-twentieth-century,” but was preserved by a few who then taught others as the craft was revived during the late 1960s and early ‘70s during the back-to-the-land movement and renewed interest in artisan crafts and natural building. Eventually “prized tools like old mortising machines” were found “mouldering away” and brought back into use. Now the masters of the craft include new materials and technology for air sealing and barriers, making the structures more safe, healthy and tight, simultaneously. “Timber framing is a cool way to get a structure up fast,” David summarizes, adding that "it’s possible to build the frame in winter so builders are not spending so much time on site, especially on long distance projects. People increasingly see timber framing as a way to support intelligent building envelopes.”
The timber framing fad phase peaked fifteen to twenty years ago, but is “still fairly trendy.” Business is certainly booming for this Vershire business. David says, “everybody is busy” in the timber framing business, with TimberHomes now booking toward the end of 2018. In fact, the company has just bought ten acres in Montpelier just north of town on Route 12. There will be plenty of room "for a big shop space, overhead crane, easy movement of materials in and out."
TimberHomes has also recently hired another employee, in addition to two current full-timers, and expects to welcome another in May. Two of the four partners are anticipating some time away from the business this year, with Shannon expecting a baby and Timo off to France with his family. David explains that they are a “lifestyle company” that is intentional about allowing flexibility, to expect personnel “not to be doing work all the time,” but to be able “to follow the paths that you follow.”
Though officially registered as TimberHomes LLC, the business is effectively a cooperative. After a three-year probationary period an employee can apply to become a partner/investor, which supports the expansion of the business as well as its longevity. "There is a clear way to join the company and to leave when people are ready to move on, as well as a conscious effort to create a culture around smart building."
Below is an example of TimberHomes work featured on the cover of The Natural Building Companion.
The crew is currently busy working on trailhead kiosks, prefabricating different models for summer orders. The team is feeling confident enough about demand to use their relatively slow winter time this way, having built up a reputation in this niche area, including turning up in top search engine results, due to their gorgeous website by Dadra Design. With a second base of operations in Middlesex, the team is also cutting the frame for a nice Great Room in Massachusetts, and is about to cut a frame for a house in Chelsea. There is also design work for future clients, including more barns in the works.
Community barn-raisings are the purest traditional form of timber framing, and Vershire sports a fine if diminutive example of this spirit in the Vershire Bread Oven Pavilion, raised over a brick wood-fired oven that sits just outside the Vershire Town Center. Initiated by Laura Craft and completed with donated labor and materials, this would be a great subject for a future Buzz blog post…
Other projects have included the quintessential Man Cave such as a barn-garage with workshop off to the side, and rec room upstairs. David had never heard of She Sheds but was intrigued by the concept. Perhaps a new specialty branch for TimberHomes?
“I continue to like the fact that this is a process and technology that really uses local materials like Eastern White Pine, which grows everywhere, and is a trustworthy, predictable well-behaved wood. It’s not very strong, but you know what will happen when you use it in a certain way. We do a lot with naturally curved wood, forked wood. Josh is really gifted at using that wood creatively and soundly. When you have a big forked tree in the middle of your living room you can just go up and hug it! It’s about being sheltered as intimately with your surroundings as you can.”A TimberHomes sugarhouse, nestled perfectly in its forest home.
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